What a turnaround! That tireless advocate for the restoration of modern cinema, Martin Scorsese, fast becoming recognized as America's greatest living director, enjoys the renewal of his seminal feature Mean Streets with this 25th-anniversary reprint. Mean Streets was one of the director's first acutely autobiographical films about growing up Catholic and Italian-American in New York City, the other being the scarcely seen Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1968). Both works present likable if confused protagonists as stand-ins for Scorsese himself.
Streets is the picture that first brought together Scorsese regulars Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro as Little Italy gangsters Charlie and Johnny Boy. Their slightly unbelievable friendship jars the members of Charlie's gang, while they go about collecting payments for Charlie's racketeer uncle Giovanni. And although this isn't a mob movie, Scorsese and his co-screenwriter Mardik Martin have laced it with sharp commentary on the underworld of New York City. This aspect is given considerable screen time, as are Scorsese's concerns with social corruption in general, his divided views on women, an overarching Catholic mind-set and the use of the phrase, "What'samattawith you?"
In retrospect, Mean Streets is a film of singular influence. It is Scorsese's trademark to take an old cinema idea &emdash; a group of people living in or going to hell &emdash; and create a new form with it. The work owes a bit to vintage noir, but this is formative Scorsese with all the basics present: the spasmodic hand-held camera, the anarchic violence, the hit-studded sound track. And while in some ways Streets is Scorsese at his stiffest (De Niro on top of the pool table at Fat Joey's is laughable), the film sets out indelible imagery through the hell-obsessed Charlie; Keitel holding his hand over the stove flames at the faltering restaurant is unforgettable.
But aside from the ambivalent Charlie, this is a very basic story about some very simple characters. What fascinates about Mean Streets is the sheer lasting power of Scorsese's archetypes. Their resonance lies in their universality, which in turn stems from the dimness of their motives.
As an urban take on Dante's Inferno, this masterwork is the forerunner of the Hughes brothers' Menace II Society, as well as Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and many, many others. Scorsese simultaneously plumbs the banalities and explores the possibilities of these doomed, tragic men.
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